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Bigger, smarter, cheaper: Europe private water concessions evolve

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Chloé Meyer
Senior Research Director, Bluefield Research

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  • Bigger, smarter, cheaper: Europe private water concessions evolve

Europe is no stranger to private participation in its water sector. From Portugal to Romania, thousands of municipalities across the continent outsource water and wastewater services – especially in Southern Europe. City councils, regional governments, and municipal boards choose experienced engineering and operations management companies to manage water and sewer services through EU and nationally regulated tender processes. 

Several factors drive the outsourcing decision to professionalize asset management, reduce costs, and optimize resource allocation. This outsourcing market has matured in most countries, with tight competition among a consolidated group of players to lure municipalities away from rivals for contracts or acquire smaller regional players. 

At over 60% of the population served by private concessionaires, France is the epicentre of Europe’s private water concession market, giving rise to global players Veolia, Suez and Saur. Most recently, on 17 July 2023, the Veolia Group secured a major contract with Perpignan Mediterranee Metropole (PMM) for water and sewage management. The contract spans 12 years, across 36 communities, for €650 million.  

Then on 27 July, via its French subsidiary SEFO, Spanish private utility Aqualia won a €22.5 million contract over Suez and Gedia-Aqualter to provide wastewater services in 41 Centre-Val de Loire municipalities. Over the next 6 years, SEFO will manage an additional 4 treatment plants, 561 km of networks, and 149 pumping stations. Aqualia’s French presence thus expands beyond Île de France and Brittany, to reach 138 French municipalities in just 4 years.

Several factors drive the outsourcing decision to professionalize asset management, reduce costs, and optimize resource allocation

Two key trends are at play with these contracts that illustrate how Europe concessions evolve:  consolidation among municipalities, and a focus on value-added technologies and services as a key contract condition. Outside of the UK’s fully privatized and consolidated sector, most European countries host hundreds, or even thousands of water and sewer network operators.  A combination of challenging macroeconomic conditions, lack of qualified personnel, rising operational costs and aging infrastructure encourages municipalities to band together to capture economies of scale and improve performance. 

Perpignan exemplifies the pooling of French public services, boosted by the 2015 NOTRe law that instigated the transfer of water and sanitation management from smaller municipalities to larger urban communities. The law, mandatory since 2020, means larger utility systems will continue to emerge in the coming years. The reorganization of Italian municipalities into optimized territorial areas follows this consolidation trend. Spain’s current Recovery Transformation and Resilience Plan also encourages collaboration across municipalities for network optimization.

Value-added technologies and services are becoming integral to bid selection as the water sector digitalizes to address its many operational challenges. Non-revenue water (NRW) reduction with advanced metering and leak detection technologies forms a key part of that.  PMM’s contract requires a reduction from 20% to 12% of NRW, smart meters for all customers, and a redesign of its information management system for greater efficiency and predictability. In Spain and Italy, recovery fund programs embed network digitalization into contract tenders.

As all countries become increasingly sensitive to water management, these scaling up and smartening trends are a good thing. Water is interconnected with all communities and industries, and our infrastructure networks are not islands but nodes that require modernization to optimize their functioning. Europe’s move towards the synchronization of smaller networks, with the latest digital tools, promises a more sustainable and resilient future.   

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